In the Arena

Corleone Country

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A few years ago, when I was about to interview Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, I asked a US intelligence expert what he most wanted to know about Syria’s President. “We’d most like to know if he’s Michael or Fredo,” he said, referring to the Alpha and Omega brothers of the Corleone crime family. I came away from my interview with Assad uncertain as to the answer to the spook’s question: He was much smarter than Fredo, but less confident and controlled than Michael.

But, over time, it’s become clear to me just how appropriate the Godfather metaphor is. Recently, I spoke to an Israeli intelligence expert who told me that the real Michael in the Assad family may be sister Bushra who, with her husband Assef Shawqat, exerts control over the Syrian intelligence services.

Whoever is holding the whip hand–and it does seem that Syria is a family business–we are now seeing how the Corleones might react if they ran a country in the Middle East: with utter brutality. It’s been near impossible for journalists to get into Syria, so it’s difficult to know just how awful things are. But, given the family history–father Hafez killed an estimated 20,000 in Hama in 1982–we can expect the worst.

I find this particularly upsetting. I’ve made several trips to Syria in recent years and it’s one of my favorite countries in the region, a beautiful place with some of the most gracious people I’ve ever met. They deserve freedom. I hope they triumph soon, with a minimum of bloodshed.